November 22, 2008
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
EEEK! Never underestimate the impact of a big, hairy, muscular Chicago rat running across the richly textured carpet of a Palmer House Hilton dining room packed with guests who'd just eaten a lovely dinner served from the kitchen where said rat may have just emerged.
But there it was, galloping in the warm glow of the chandelier light, trying like crazy to exit a fund-raising dinner for the Chicago Crime Commission on Wednesday night.
If you'd like to see it for yourself, here's a link: www.nbcchicago.com/news/local /Rat-Interrupts-Crime-Commission-Awards.html
But come back for the rest of the story.
The mistress of ceremonies for the evening was NBC/Chicago anchor and colleague Allison Rosati, who witnessed it all. "It was running right in front of us, going back and forth between two big double doors," she said. "People in front could see it clear as day."
One stunned woman in the audience suggested weakly that it might be a squirrel but no, said Rosati, "That is not a squirrel, it's a very healthy rat. . . . All the jokes are running through your head and then all of sudden he came back. We all were watching this rat, hoping it would not come at us."
A quick-witted soul finally opened a door and then shut it fast behind the rat as it escaped to who knows where.
So why do I tell you this story? I mean, besides the fact that rat stories in Chicago are always tales worth telling? The four-legged kind. And certainly the two-legged variety.
Because there's so much extermination left to do.
This great city now has the dubious distinction of having three -- repeat, three -- FBI public corruption squads. That's as many as New York. Whoever called us the Second City clearly wasn't paying attention.
Chicago has never been ready for reform. Just ask federal crook and snitch Stuart Levine or political fund-raiser and felon Tony Rezko or the soon-to-be-imprisoned millionaire former alderman Edward "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak.
Just ask Gov. Blagojevich, who has federal agents crawling all over his administration, or Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, whose government has taken delivery of many federal subpoenas, or Mayor Daley, whose patronage chief now sits in federal prison.
This city's rats, the ones that feast on all the goodies government has to offer -- pension fund investments, leases, land deals, patronage jobs, outside legal business -- multiply in the dark.
The Chicago Crime Commission, born 99 years ago on the cusp of the Roaring Twenties and the heyday of Al Capone, was an early civic leader in trying to stop that, a watchdog against graft, corruption and organized crime.
Supported by the business community for decades, it was a place where a businessperson could go to inquire about how to handle a problem with extortion. The commission, staffed with ex-law enforcement types, knew how to turn to the police or the feds without bringing attention to the business being squeezed.
For newspeople, the Chicago Crime Commission has been the keeper of our institutional memory, the place we could search through yellowed newspaper clips and files to find obscure names and long-forgotten cases that provided context for contemporary stories.
But for years now, money and membership have been drying up.
On October 1st, the Commission's president, Jim Wagner, resigned. A respected former FBI supervisor, he told me Friday, "The corporate funding was gone and so was foundation money."
A skeleton staff remains, but last week nobody answered repeated calls.
That's why the rat at last week's dinner was its own sad metaphor.
He got away.